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Teaching Reading and Autism from Autism Classroom Resources

How Can We Best Teach Reading to Students with Autism?

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I was reading a discussion in a forum online recently in which a parent or teacher (I don’t remember which) asked for advice about teaching reading to her child or student with autism. The forum was primarily made up of educators. I am always interested in ideas to teach our students how to read, so I was interested to see what was being said. It actually brought some things to light about people’s preconceptions and myths about teaching reading to students on the spectrum.

Teaching Reading and Autism from Autism Classroom ResourcesNow let me preface by saying that am definitely NOT a reading expert. I wish I was but it just never happened. However there are a lot of things I have learned about reading instruction and students on the spectrum that contradicted many of the things that were being mentioned. 

If you have some knowledge to share on the subject PLEASE DO!!  I would love for folks to share what they know and resources they use in their own classrooms that are scientifically based.  In the meantime, I wanted to share some ideas to think about in making decisions about reading instruction for students on the spectrum.

First myth:  All students with autism should have primarily a sight word curriculum. 

Now the first clear problem is that all or never trap. Nothing in autism is always or never, or all or none. Yes many students do respond well to learning sight words. However that does not and SHOULD NOT keep us from introducing phonics to them. Phonics is a door opener for all children. Failing to do everything in our power to teach this approach will significantly impact the child’s progress in school.  This doesn’t mean that some students will be more successful with sight words, it just means we shouldn’t assume that’s the case if they don’t make progress on the classroom curriculum.

Second myth: Students with autism can’t learn with conventional curricula for reading so we have to “make our own.”  

Please understand that I have a great appreciation for how hard teachers work to create materials for their students, to individualize curricula for the students and to adapt materials. However that is not creating a curriculum. A curriculum is a scope and sequence. It tells you what to teach and in what order. You can read more about it in this post.  Sometimes it gives you the materials to teach it, like PCI, but many times it doesn’t. Creating materials to teach reading, unless you are developing a true scope and sequence and testing it out in real research, is not creating what we are required to use to teach all students how to read: a scientifically based reading curriculum.

However, teacher-made and supplemental materials are useful and often critical for giving the students additional practice, but they aren’t the curriculum themselves.  For instance, I love using the Edmark Functional Word Series for older students (by itself or with other approaches dependent upon the student).  Students need more practice on these words, though, in a variety of situations to be able to use them functionally in their environment.  So, I make task cards and file folders for them to practice the words.  

Also, I have to do a minor correction.  I noted in a previous post on curriculum that Unique is not a reading curriculum.  Apparently that same day they announced that they were launching, you guessed it, a reading curriculum.  I have not had time to play with it yet but hope to in the next few weeks and then will be back with an update on many of the changes they have put in place to the program.

Third myth: There is no scientifically based curriculum for students with autism.

Curricula aren’t determined, in most instances, to be scientifically based for a diagnosis that is not specific to the reading problems that a student demonstrates.  They are evaluated for how they fit the characteristics of the individual reader.  Even though students have an autism diagnosis, that does not mean they all have the same difficulties with reading.  

I have graduate students I teach tell me that they don’t have specialized curricula for their students so they use website-based “curricula.”  That is ok if you have vetted the online curriculum to see if it is scientifically based. Some, like Headsprout from Learning A-Z has a ton of research to support it. But much of what you find out on the Internet is an attempt to make money but not necessarily an evidence-based practice. It’s not that internet-based or teacher-made tools aren’t useful—they are vital.  But you have to check to see how they fit with the scope and sequence of what you need to teach.

So how do we teach reading to students with autism?

Start with general education curricula.

Obviously you start with the district’s adopted curriculum before you make changes. You look at whether accommodations will help. And you monitor very often and early. Then if If the student is not making progress you move to alternative curriculum. And for each of them you assess early and often to see if it is working. 

Use Direct Instruction

There is some early evidence that using direct instruction curricula, such as Reading Mastery, can be effective for students with autism to learn phonics-based reading.  The students respond to the high level of structure and repetition that DI uses and many are able to make progress using it 1-1 if not in a group setting.  [By the way, did you know there are DI materials for teaching math? Many of our kids do well with them too.]

Teach phonics and sight words together

It’s so easy to get caught up in an all-or-nothing approach, we have to careful to remember that we can teach sight words AND phonics-based approaches simultaneously.  One of the things I like about the PCI Reading Curriculum is that it transitions from early teaching in sight words into teaching phonics.  I have worked with many students who are working on Edmark and Reading Mastery at the same time so we are sure we are covering our bases.  We also are taking data to see which one is working most functionally for the student.

Ask Your Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP)

Because students with autism struggle with reading because, in part, of their difficulty with language, SLPs are natural resources for helping address the reading problems.  Some SLPs have more experience than others in teaching reading, but many can be an amazing resource to help to build reading skills and structure language instruction to support them.

Make it functional and focus on comprehension.

After all that, remember that reading is only useful if it can be used and if there is comprehension.  Many of our students learn to “word call” where they can read and say all the words, but they don’t know what they mean.  Again, the SLP can help with this. Many students will need additional practice on comprehension and there are many teacher-made tools out there that can be used to practice the skill.  If you are looking for materials to support reading curriculum, drop me a comment or an email and I’ll send you some resources.

And finally, always make sure to be focusing on the bigger issue of literacy not just reading. 

Reading is important.  Clearly it’s a gateway skill that leads to more efficient learning of all skills across the board. However, literacy and the ability to use print in a variety of different ways from reading and writing in books, through environmental print, and understanding how to access reading material is a critical skill that even our students with the most complex needs can be working on.

First, you might want to hop over to Superteach’s Special Ed Spot today to check out her post on PCI and Edmark.  She is highlighting some similarities and differences between the two.

But before you go, what are your thoughts about teaching reading to students with autism?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Until next time,

Autism Classroom Resources

31 thoughts on “How Can We Best Teach Reading to Students with Autism?”

  1. I use Unique Learning curriculum in my classroom. It’s differentiated, grade leveled and already tied to Common Core. If you haven’t checked it out, you may want to. Let me know what you think.

  2. Chris,
    I wish more educators understood that students on the spectrum need research based strategies that align systematically and integrate across most settings. I have seen progress when students are given direct instruction with comprehension and word study ( we call it the rules of words). They begin to see the correlation between reading and writing.

  3. Hi – great info on best practice regarding reading – thanks! What I struggle with both as a special education teacher and mom of a non -verbal son — is teaching reading when limited responses are available. My son can point to an answer, or find a simple answer in his AAC device — but that’s such a far cry from a verbal child who can give answers correct or not, discuss, guess at what might happen next etc etc. the more they talk the more we can follow their thought process, where errors are occurring, what level of comprehension they have. My goal this year is to find a successful way to teach / encourage love of literacy. Any further suggestions would be greatly appreciated!


    Thanks Ellen. I love the Unique and am planning on spending some time with their new reading materials and will be posting on it soon. 🙂


    I completely agree, Karen. Their reading needs are so different and varied that it is difficult for a teacher (particularly one who has to specialize in all the different disabilities’ needs) to know all the options. Thanks!!


    Debra, your struggle is similar to many of those I and other teachers have had as well. It’s hard to teach a sound-based system of reading for a child who is nonverbal. However, with the use of adapted books and adapted materials, along with AAC, we can work on literacy and comprehension by ordering pictures, selecting vocabulary, choosing pictures that references inferences about what happens next, etc. That is something I see a need for in teacher materials. Edmark and some of the sight word curricula are good options for many of these students because even if they can’t “read” the word aloud, they can learn the sightwords by pointing and through AAC. I will put together a post of resources and thoughts for these student in the near future…you bring up some excellent points. Thanks for sharing and stay tuned. 🙂

  7. I teach k-2, 4 lifeskills and currently do not have any sort of curriculum to pull from. Since I have a variety of skills and levels I’m having a very hard time figuring out what to do especially when it comes to reading. Any advice? Thanks!

  8. In teach non verbal students with autism grade K-2. In my classroom we use Edmark the issue I ran into was comprehension. So at the end of last year I started using adapted books which really helped me to see if they were grasping basic information from the text. This year I wanted to incorporate phonics so my district provide me with the SRA language for learning direct instruction program which is not for phonics but I will use it for reading comprehension. It says that children learn words, concepts, and statements important to both oral and written language. I am reading the teacher’s guide and will began implementation of in next week. It looks like I will have to create adapted pictures for my students to answer the questions but so far reading the manual I like that it provides teaching techniques and corrections. I still need help finding a phonics curriculum.


    Kelsey I would start with accommodations and modifications with the general education reading program. If that is not successful I would look at Reading Mastery or PCI as a possibility.


    I love Language for Learning–it gives you the underpinning of the reading skills. I think you will really like it. Read the review of PCI I linked to in the post and see if that would be appropriate. If not then when the students get through Language for Learning you could move on to Reading Mastery.

  11. Yes, to all of that. I have had lots of kids have success with the ELSB program from Attainment, but they only provide a piece of the puzzle. Adapting the literature used in the gen ed classes for kids on the spectrum is the additional piece that’s needed!
    We don’t give special ed teachers access to enough of the curriculum!

  12. Great post! I know so many teachers (myself included when I started) who struggled with thinking how to teach students with Autism how to read. If it’s not DTT, people don’t know what to do! Thank you for this post to help educate others of the best practices (and the importance of evidence-based practices!) for teaching reading to all kiddos!

    Mindful Rambles

  13. Hi, I have a 3rd grader on the spectrum, who knows how to read but lacks comprehension. I’ve been using A-Z reading, due to district’s limited resources, but I would like some recommendations to use for reading comprehension.

    Thank you


    I’ve got that post of resources coming up in the next week or so, so stay tuned. Comprehension is definitely the most difficult part. 🙂

  15. Last year my boys used Headsprouts Early Reading and they loved it. When they finished the Early Reading part, we started the Headsprouts Comprehension but the jump to that level was huge and we were very disappointed with it. This year we are using Reading Horizons Discovery for Home and again, they LOVE it! We mention reading they RUN to the computers and start on their own. I highly recommend it. It is a computer based K-3 program and they offer a 30 day trial for $10 I believe. BTW, my boys both have limited verbal skills.


    I love Headsprout! so glad it worked for you. I thought they had been sold so wasn’t sure they were still around. Thanks for sharing!!

  17. There are some very good materials and information for teaching reading to kids who are nonverbal. Of course, from the start, the child needs a robust AAC system that has sufficient vocabulary for him to re-tell, sequence, describe, answer. (I’m a SLP specializing in AAC). There’s a lot of information about using shared reading to build both literacy and language skills, encouraging discussion, etc. Using Before-During-After activities that set the purpose for each reading, with multiple readings of the same book to build those skills. By starting with listening and responding skills, we build the phonological awareness skills and then phonics skills the student needs, using the AAC system to respond.
    I’m so glad you’re looking to build your child’s literacy skills. I fight to get those into special ed classrooms for these kids! Try taking a look at Karen Ericsson’s work at UNC-Chapel Hill and Janice Light’s work at Penn State.

  18. Yes! I think we need to get a lot of DTT out of the classroom and start using more of the general ed curriculum, adapted for our students. Lovaas himself said you can’t teach language through discreet trial. Reading is the same. There are some programs that provide some of the discrete trials that help with many of the underpinnings skills, but literacy skills need to be taught in the context of reading.

  19. I am starting at a new school in a 2-3 ASD classroom. I am expected to use the Reading Street Curriculum but I am having difficulty figuring out how to reach all conecpts within the curriculum in a way that the students get the most out of it instead of just reviewing all the conecpts and not teaching into them further due to time restraints.


    I’m not quite sure what to tell you other than suggesting that you use the required curriculum but supplement it with another that provides more explicit instruction.

  21. I know it’s an old post but as the mother of two boys on the spectrum, I applaud your insight. I stumbled on your blog in an attempt to look for “after-schooling” resources for my boys, both hyperlexic but deficient in comprehension skills. My many IEP meetings, conferences with reading teachers and even the principal (yes, I am now a problem parent) has left me with the usual “Just keep reading to them and having discussions about the material”.

    I just had to drop a line to tell you how much I appreciate an educator that still obviously cares about education. Indeed, you are a rare specie now.

  22. Hi,

    I work with deaf and autstic high school students. For the non-verbal child, using sign language has been a significant benefit for their communication challenges. Wondering if you have thought about that?

  23. I have a hyperlexic student as well who struggles with comprehension. I use Language! with him and focus on teaching him to utilize the text to answer questions. He does awesome with applying grammatical rules and has a good grasp on parts of speech, so he feels a lot of success with the program. This program also does a nice job scaffolding his writing by teaching the students to create an outline then write the essay off of this (which really helps with the tendency to copy straight from the book).

  24. “we can work on literacy and comprehension by ordering pictures, selecting vocabulary, choosing pictures that references inferences about what happens next” PLEASE yes ma’am PLEASE!
    Please please please do this. I have wondered for a few years how I would know if my child is reading or what he can understand. He is nonverbal and on a LAMP device and uses Words for Life at school on the IPad. I would appreciate it if you did a series for parents on how to reinforce skills. He has a pretty good sight word vocabulary and has understood sounds and phonics since he was 18 months old, and can spell many words that have blown us away but really he just acts bored and I am wondering if we aren’t pushing him or need to take another approach. He is 6.

  25. We tried signing for years but my child does not imitate, he does love his signing time DVD’s though. In my experience many parents of nonverbal children start with sign and then move to PECS then to a device because signing is great but a lot of these kids do not have the prerequisite skills, the motor planning, or the ability. Just my personal experience though. Signing is a great place to start

  26. This is a very helpful article! Can you guide me toward good resources for reading instruction for moderately autistic, nonverbal students with limited visual attention? I work with an autistic student who is in 9th grade and parents continue to express their desire for him to read, but he has still not mastered attending to visuals (even on on his AAC device). There are so many precursors to reading that this student struggles with; I will never say never but I want to be realistic in goal planning. Any suggestions are welcome and appreciated!

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